What is the origin of the phrase "needle in a hay stack"? Initially I thought it was a game once played but I haven't found any mention of it outside of it's idiomatic use.

  • I vaguely remember hearing that a needle was a long tool used in haymaking. Very difficult finding origin. – user92816 Sep 28 '14 at 16:26
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    @user92816: The hard-to-find origin is hidden in a haystack somewhere. – Drew Mar 26 '16 at 2:06
  • Time to protect the question, nine answers (three deleted) with no upvotes, of which eight were posted by users with 1 rep. – Mari-Lou A yesterday
up vote 12 down vote accepted

The idiom in full is: "like looking for a needle in a haystack" it is based on the idea that it is very hard to find a sewing needle in a haystack (a tall pile of dry grass). It means when something is extremely difficult (or impossible) to find.

The first example of this idea in print was in the works of St. Thomas More in 1532:

"To seek out one line in his bookes would be to go look (for) a needle in a meadow."

Source: Data Hiding: Exposing Concealed Data in Multimedia, Operating Systems, Mobile Devices and Network Protocols; Michael T. Raggo, Chet Hosmer

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  • This is what the OED has as the earliest citation in English, too. – Andrew Leach Jul 24 '13 at 8:27

It appears that the origin of the phrase goes back to the 1600s. It was first recorded to be used in Don Quixote de la Mancha written from 1605-1615, which was written by Miguel de Cervantes.

I'm quite sure it wasn't a game but was implied something that was almost impossible to achieve even back in those days.

Here's the reference: http://www.businessballs.com/clichesorigins.htm

  • -1 The article you give as a reference is incorrect on several accounts. Most importantly, it misreads its own source (Bartlett's) as saying that the idiom is from a translation from Don Quixote. But Bartlett's expressly says that the work it references is The Spiritual Don Quixote written in 1772 by Graves. The usage is from that work, not any work of Cervantes. – Let's stop villifying Iran Apr 20 at 20:08

Not only is a needle in a haystack nearly impossible to find (without a magnet), but more importantly it is very dangerous for the animals consuming the hay. It is a problem with a dire consequence if the solution is not found. We're talking about having to burn the haystack or let a horse swallow a needle. I think this is closer to the meaning of the phrase.

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    Do you have any evidence to support your claim that potential danger is any part, let alone the "more important" part, of the common meaning of this phrase? – Scott Jan 31 '17 at 19:47

I found "’tis seeking a needle in a bottle of hay" in the book, The Armourer's Prentices, by Charlotte Mary Yonge, Chapter III, Published October 1883-August 1884, serialized in The English Illustrated Magazine. 1884, published by Macmillan.

I found this at http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext06/arpn10h.htm

Sarah Meisner Texas

The expression is the same in German and in Italian: cercare un ago in pagliaio http://de.bab.la/woerterbuch/italienisch-deutsch/ago

Perhaps it was already used in Latin.

This expression is also found in Portuguese: "procurar uma agulha num palheiro". The fact that it is found in German, Italian and Portuguese as well as English would lead one to suspect that it is very old, indeed. It would be interesting to research other Indo-european languages such as Persian and Urdu to see if that expression is found there.

When hay was stored in stacks by the farmers many years ago! it was easy for the hay to over heat and spoil, if not dried properly before being stacked. The farmer would use long steel bars, which were called needles, at spaced out intervals along the stack and left there, the farmer could then check, at regular times by pulling the needles out, if the hay was over heating. The problem was was that if the needles position were not marked before being inserted, then it was very difficult to find the needles. I believe that is where the saying originates

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    Welcome to ELU alan. Thank you for this answer, it sounds highly plausible. If you could find and quote any evidence for it it would be even better. – Avon Jul 30 '15 at 8:40
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    I am suspicious of your answer. Hay is still stored in stacks. Hay is not dried before being stacked; proper stacking allows the air to circulate through the stack. Wet hay generates a lot of heat when it spoils. Steel bars would do nothing but conduct the heat through the stack. Steel bars would be easy to find. The origins of the phrase predate steel bars. I could be convinced by evidence that this answer isn't misleading. Please provide some. – deadrat Jul 30 '15 at 9:58
  • Hello, thank you for your welcome, i'm afraid i don't have any quotes or evidence to back up my explanation of the meaning. Kim – alan watts Aug 4 '15 at 4:09
  • Thanks for your welcome, when grass is cut it's very important that it's dried properly before it can be stacked as hay, any moisture in it will make it over heat and spoil, hay is compacted when stored, air won't circulate around it. The rods (needles) were inserted into the stack and left there, periodically the farmer would pull them out, check the heat, then push them back in. As a lad i remember seeing them being used – alan watts Aug 4 '15 at 5:23
  • If you observe the other answers you will see that the expression is far older than would be any steel bars. But in response to @deadrat, it is true that in some climates the hay is not immediately stacked but is hung up to dry first. In Norway there are sort of "clotheslines" running through the hayfields to facilitate this. – Hot Licks Sep 25 '15 at 12:16

Needle in a haystack's origin is Arabic. Part of an ancient Arabic proverb.

In doing research into the Arabic language and ancient history, I was surprised to find that many of our modern (last couple of centuries) sayings have their origins in old Arabic proverbs.

Possibly making their way into English and European languages during the Crusades.

Ancient:relating to a remote period, to a time early in history.

Just found this version in Conrad's Heart of Darkness: "Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness, like a needle in a bundle of hay."

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